Animal-assisted therapy involves interacting with animals to help treat health issues, including depression. The idea of using animals in a therapeutic way goes back centuries. Historical accounts include using animals to improve morale, engage the attention of the elderly, and help people with disabilities improve their skills.

Keep reading to find out how animal-assisted therapy works and some of its pros and cons.

Read more: Pet therapy »

Playing, caring for, or simply petting an animal is believed to have several positive effects on a person. It creates a sense of calm and a sense of purpose. Although any animal can provide this, animals commonly used for therapy include:

  • cats
  • dogs
  • horses
  • birds
  • rabbits

Petting an animal can cause your brain to release chemicals called endorphins. These chemicals counteract your body’s reaction to pain by causing a sense of pleasure or well-being. This can help ease depression.

Pet Partners is an organization that supports the use of therapy animals. They describe two kinds of therapeutic interactions with animals: animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapies. The difference is in the structure of the interaction.

Activity sessions usually involve meet-and-greets with a number of people and animals. The meetings are unstructured and free from detailed goals. Therapy sessions are more formal and usually include set goals.

Animal-assisted therapy doesn’t yet have much clinical evidence to back its usefulness. However, a large body of anecdotal evidence supports it.

Benefits of animal-assisted therapy include:

  • drawing your attention to the animal and away from your problems
  • encouraging empathy and nurturing skills
  • instilling a feeling of acceptance or fulfillment
  • causing a calming effect

Risks of animal-assisted therapy are the same as those of handling or being around animals. These include the potential for an allergic reaction or attack. Both animals and their handlers must be trained for activity and therapy scenarios.

Animal-assisted therapy can give a person a feeling of companionship and acceptance, combating feelings of depression and isolation. Giving someone something to care for gives them a purpose in life and is rewarding and fulfilling.

Talk to your doctor or therapist if you think you might benefit from animal-assisted therapy. It’s important to set goals when using this therapy. Be sure to see your doctor or therapist regularly so that they can monitor your progress.